Category Archives: Books

Diane Keaton, Design Books, and Toy Blocks

Five New Architecture and Design Books for your Holiday List

‘Tis the season to give architecture — as literature, I mean. Here’s a quick roundup of titles to consider for the design buff on your list.

Actor’s Equity. Stimulating the architectural imagination through playing with basic forms — the toy block approach! –  is the theme of actress Diane Keaton’s

beautiful new book House (Rizzoli, 2012). It’s a lavish and mesmerizing Continue reading

Continuity and the Craftsman Style

Dinner & Design

I just returned from a dinner at the Gamble House in Pasadena, the great 1908 Craftsman style landmark by Greene & Greene. The occasion was to celebrate the publication of a book about the photographer Maynard Parker, who shot everything from Craftsman landmarks like the Gamble House, to celebrity homes of the 1940s and 1950s, to work by ranch house designer Cliff May and landscape architect Thomas Church.  The evening made me appreciate anew

the key elements of Greene & Greene architecture, such as the expressive use of  Continue reading

Tour de France Architecture and the Classical Home

Pass the Salt — and the Classical Ideal

One of the great pleasures of watching the Tour de France (a current nightly addiction) is seeing modern cycling in a setting of great classical architecture. The most vivid backdrop so far was last week’s ninth-stage start at the famous

late 18th century salt works at Arc-et-Senans, Besançon (photo courtesy estrepublicain.fr). This remarkable complex of buildings (the one above was a theater) arose as part of an early utopian idea for a factory town, when salt was a precious commodity as an agent for food preservation and to improve taste, and a royal monopoly. Though these three riders are understandably oblivious to the robust Doric order behind them, they are chatting, ironically, beside an early example of what scholars call “architecture parlante” or “talking architecture,”

designed by Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, and completed in 1778.  The aerial view shows the semi-circular layout and the architect’s interest in geometric order (photo courtesy salineroyale.com). In his excellent book European Architecture 1750-1890, architectural historian Barry Bergdoll explains that architecture parlante was about expressing the identity and profession of the client “through the manipulation of architectural symbolism.” Here that meant using a rustic Doric order (because Doric signified a utilitarian function at that time) and an orderly — i.e. geometric — layout with “an arc of residential and service buildings facing the salt production sheds and the director’s house along the diameter.”

Among the most expressive, or loquacious aspects of the Salt Works are the ornamental sculptures of saline water just before crystallization, as shown in this image, courtesy Miami.edu — which could also represent the occasional cramping that cyclists experience…Hydrate! Hydrate! Classical architecture has always embodied large ideas and associations — order, knowledge, Greece and Rome — so it’s easy to see how an architect like Ledoux would take imagery to an

extreme, as in his design for the keeper of a river dam’s power source as a giant sluice gate (never built; image courtesy Arch 672: Smart Surfaces Studio). It could be a progenitor of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater at Bear Run, Pennsylvania for Edgar Kaufmann — only River Keeper Kaufmann actually ran a department store.

As it happens, Thomas Jefferson arrived in France in 1784, not long after the salt works and other buildings by Ledoux had been completed, and soaked up the classical vibe (if not the salt) from daily walks in Paris, as an insightful and

beautifully printed new book by historian Diana Ketcham and photographer Michael Kenna — Thomas Jefferson’s Paris Walks (Arion Press, 2012) — demonstrates. According to Ketcham, Jefferson was most attracted to

Neoclassical buildings like the new palace for the Prince de Salm, from 1787, with its monumental portico and long rows of columns along a court of honor (photo courtesy Arion Press). Upon his return from Paris in 1796, Jefferson

redesigned Monticello, no doubt prompted by what he saw in France. Monticello’s high blocky entablature and balustrade wrapping the brick wall above the windows like a tightly cinched cummerbund may have derived from the grand double entablature at de Salm. You can see echoes of the colonnade arrangement in his much later plan for The Lawn (central quad) at the University of Virginia.

The classical portico idea remains popular to this day. A recent, much

simplified version, is  Plan 492-8, by architect-sculptor Michael Curtis (part of our Exclusive Studio Collection), with its pedimented front porch. Inside of course, the layout is very contemporary, with the kitchen-dining room

and master suite opening to a spacious deck. Such a design would suit a site in neighborhoods where the language of classical architecture is still spoken. And in New Urbanist communities like Seaside, Florida or Stapleton, Colorado, which are classically inspired and where garages are usually on rear alleys, the main streets would be safer for cyclists!

Spring Color Palettes

The Art in Artichoke

There’s just something about April: Chaucer talked about the showers, T. S. Eliot said it was the cruelest month, and travel agents call it a “shoulder season.” Though to me April means doing a lot of weeding, I think it’s also a great time to develop a nature-oriented paint scheme for freshening up your interior.  My friend the architectural colorist Tina Beebe once told me to look no further than the artichoke for one of nature’s most elegant color palettes so, since artichokes are now in season, let’s start here. Cut one open, as this photo (courtesy The Delicious Life) shows and you’ll find a surprising range of spring hues to choose from. Now thanks to color matching websites you can develop a palette from

almost any image. Here’s the palette that deGraeve’s Color Palette Generator produced from the photo I uploaded. It’s appealing, with bright and dull versions, though it didn’t get the subtle violet at the center. Or how about this

image of a granite dock on the Maine coast. I like the greens and grays. Here’s how deGraves’s other color match website called Color Hunter isolated the hues.

You don’t get to see the original image alongside the isolated hues as you do with deGraeve, but Color Hunter’s black background makes the tones stand out. Though you should always allow for color variation on the computer as well as in print, this is a great way to develop a set of colors you like before confronting the dauntingly vast array of color chips at the hardware or paint store. Another way is just to print out an image of a space that appeals, like the living room of

Plan 496-1 by Australian architect Leon Meyer, then identify the color palette yourself. Here the white walls, black hearth, moss green fireplace front, and natural wood furniture work well together: it’s essentially a white background with major and minor accents. The living room in a Sea Ranch, California house designed by Tina Beebe and her husband architect Buzz Yudell offers

similar lessons. Here again, background colors, this time in wall plaster and concrete floor, are neutrals; accents are mostly primary with greens toned to echo the meadow grasses outside; the wood is unpainted. In short, paint palettes don’t need a lot of colors; simpler is usually better; materials like wood and concrete are part of a palette just like paint and fabric; and nature is often a very good place to start.

For a fine introduction to the subject see Design With Color, by Karen

Templer, who is the newest member of the Houseplans family. It includes a wide range of color schemes to help you articulate your own taste. And for an intriguing view of color history I recommend browsing Pantone: The 20th Century in Color, by Leatrice Eiseman and Keith Recker, which

cleverly shows color palettes derived from popular culture, decade-by-decade. The authors isolate key colors from each period — for example, the Arts & Crafts Movement is represented by various artifacts, like a chandelier designed by

Greene & Greene and is paired with eight Pantone swatches. It’s fun to see how the authors derive the dominant colors for each era. It all shows how color taste changes and makes me wonder what a representative palette for the 21st century — so far — would be.

Ranch House Roofs and other Restoratives

Shake, Rattle, & Research

At the UCSB exhibition on ranch houses  last week I met the owner of a 1960s Cliff May-designed house who impressed me with the care he has taken in replacing the original shake roof on his 60+ year old home. Restoration projects can be problematic. His modern lightweight cement tile solution,

shown here, is successful because it remains true to the roof’s original architectural character while accommodating today’s fire codes. (Even if new wood shakes could be made non-combustible they would be prohibitively expensive.) I think Greg’s experience is useful for anyone thinking about roof replacement.

He used a Boral roofing product called Cedarlite 600 — which is designed to mimic heavy wood shakes — in a color called Silverwood (originally from Monier Lifetile). The 600 refers to weight: a 100 foot-square of Cedarlite 600 tiles weighs 600 pounds and there are 120 pieces to a square. According to Greg: “It’s a lower-density concrete tile with the primary disadvantage that it’s not as strong and walkable as the heavier concrete products.” Using heavier tiles might have meant beefing up structural support. Here are some Cedarlite examples.

Greg likes the texture and  says “It looks reasonably like shake but all the tiles are the same size — although there is variation in the molds and colors of the tiles. They can be slightly staggered but that makes it really easy for the corners to be broken off. Looking at the roof at a certain angle you can see diagonal patterns going up the roof. Most people don’t notice that but once you’re familiar with it that becomes the signature in verifying that Cedarlite 600 or it’s slightly denser cousin Madera 700 is what you’re actually looking at. I felt it was the best shake alternative available.”

Greg was worried about walking on the roof — for maintenance , clearing leaves and such. I spoke with Boral representative Altie Winters about this and she said that if you need to walk on a Cedarlite roof you should wear sticky shoes like sneakers and step where the tiles overlap and avoid the center of the tile itself. Greg used a polyurethane expanding adhesive  in lieu of nails. “The idea,” says Greg, “is that it provides a cushion in the air gap under the tiles which enhances the support when walking on it. It does seem to help quite a bit but you still need to be as careful as possible. At least when the tiles do crack they tend not to move since the adhesive is applied to much of the bottom. Supposedly this material also provides an R-4 insulation value as well. The polyset product was originally designed as a hurricane solution to eliminate the pitfalls of nails coming loose. In the West they market it as a walkability solution. So knock on wood that it will stand the test of time. We’ll see.”

SIDE NOTE: Boral recently introduced an intriguing product called the Boral Pure Smog-Eating Tile. According to Boral, the concrete roof tile’s coating contains a photocatalyst activated by daylight, which helps convert harmful nitrogen oxides into calcium nitrates. A 2,000 square foot roof of these tiles can oxidize the same amount of nitrogen oxide that a car produces from being driven up to 10,800 miles. So far the tiles only come in Mediterranean profiles that 

resemble terra cotta, as shown above.  Maybe they will produce a smog-eating shake look-alike too, some day.

Shakes weren’t the only roofing material in Cliff May’s repertoire; he also used terra-cotta  — on some of his larger custom houses he aimed for a rough hand-crafted look — and occasionally even standing seam metal. Perhaps his

most exotic choice was ocatillo branches, as shown above, to create a shade canopy over the pool at a marvelous oasis-like house in the desert near Tucson, Arizona. According to the owner the branches need to be replaced about every ten years.

The wide glassed-in or open gable, sometimes with a ridge skylight running

down the middle — as shown here at the splendidly expansive house that’s part of Bronzewing Farm, two hours north of Sydney, Australia — became a signature feature of Cliff May’s work. Incidentally, this roof retrofit used a composite tile (not concrete) and works very well.  (Photograph by Joe Fletcher for my ranch house book — shameless self-promotion department!) Such features have

inspired contemporary designers like Dan Tyree in Plan 64- 172. As Greg Friedman might say: such roofs are worth preserving with a little research and a light step.